"Americans must decide: We can remove some of the trees and lower the risk of catastrophic fire, or we can do nothing and watch them burn. I think the choice is obvious.
In a good part of the West, where forests are overgrown, we must return forests to the way they were historically, then get fire back into the ecosystem when it’s safe.”
- Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
Our overgrown and unhealthy Ponderosa pine forests are just waiting to burn!
Historically these forests were extremely open, with a few dozen trees per acre. Today, we might have hundreds or even thousands of small trees crowded into the same area. All those trees have to compete for a limited amount of water and nutrients.
Instead of an open stand of big, healthy trees like the ones early settlers saw, we now have dense thickets of small-diameter trees, vulnerable to drought, disease, and insects. All this excess vegetation helps fuel big, dangerous wildfires that not only threaten lives and property; they create a lifeless landscape. Trees are dead, watersheds degraded, soil nutrients destroyed, and wildlife is killed or left homeless.
Contrast this with a forest that isn't overcrowded or diseased or bug-infested. Wildfires move through these forests with less speed and less heat. The burning generally stays on the ground where it clears away excess fuel and revitalizes the soil. Healthy Ponderosa trees can survive this kind of low-intensity fire.
But there is just too much fuel in too many of our Ponderosa stands. Early settlement brought overgrazing and removed the American Indian practice of frequently burning the woods and prairies for a variety of objectives. Then heavy logging of large, old-growth Ponderosa left unnaturally dense stands of young fir trees in their place. This was followed by national suppression policies that didn’t take into account Ponderosa pine forest ecology and its need for frequent fire.
Today this widespread fuel buildup is contributing to larger, more catastrophic fires throughout the inland West. Restoration and active management are needed to return Ponderosa pine forests to historic conditions, where fires were beneficial rather than devastating.
Click here for a larger version of this Major Fires poster
Fire photos and Acres Burned graph by WildfireToday.com